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Karen Lee earned her college degree in education but somehow entered adulthood, as she puts it, clueless. "I knew what those who said they were happy had in their lives," says Lee, 63, now a special education teacher in Reno, Nev. "They had degrees. They were busy. They had friends. They had fun. And they were married."
In 1977, Lee was dating a fun, good-looking chef she'd worked with at an Italian restaurant in Ohio. He proposed to her. Great, now I have all the ingredients in the happiness recipe, she thought. She was 27. Three and a half years passed. She found empty alcohol bottles in their garage and did what spouses do — blamed neighborhood teenagers. "Then one day it just hit me: I'm going to be sitting in Al-Anon ... with someone I don't even really like." She felt bad about this — she knew she was supposed to stay and help her husband. "But what I thought was, There is a big wide world out there for me. So I gave him half of everything and said, 'Give me the dog, or I'll kill you.'"
Lee's divorce was one of many others in 1981. Like playing Pac-Man and doing the Jane Fonda Workout, dynamiting your marriage was something of a national pastime in the early 1980s. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. divorce rate had crept steadily upward, with two short spikes in the wakes of the world wars. Then it surged, nearly doubling between 1962 and 1973. In 1981, it peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people — more than 1.2 million. It has been declining ever since.
"Contrary to myth, the chance that the average person's marriage will end in divorce has been exaggerated," says Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. But more profound than the sheer frequency of divorce was its sudden ubiquity in pop culture and social acceptability.
Back in 1970, the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were forced to change heroine Mary Richards from recently split from her husband to merely jilted by her boyfriend because network executives were afraid that audiences wouldn't accept a divorcée. A decade later, dozens of divorced characters frolicked across prime time, from One Day at a Time to Dallas. Meanwhile, Hollywood was cranking out divorce dramas such as 1978's An Unmarried Woman and Kramer vs. Kramer, the Oscar winner for best picture of 1979.
A host of legal changes reflected the trend, including the spread of "no-fault" divorce laws nationwide. And at the peak of this Great Uncoupling, Ronald Reagan and his second wife moved into the White House, making him our first — and still only — divorced president.
Why were so many Americans suddenly looking across the marital bed and saying, "I'm outta here"?
Lawrence Ganong, cochair of the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri, traces the roots of the breakup boom to the social and political tumult of the era, and particularly to the shifting role of women, who were entering the workplace in huge numbers and, like Lee, had the resources to escape unhappy marriages. "Women have always instigated most divorces, so the rise of feminism and women's liberation were huge factors," Ganong says.
And for a certain cohort, this perfect divorce storm never passed. While the overall American rate has steadily retreated from its 1981 peak, in the 20 years since 1990, divorce has doubled for people older than 50 and tripled for people over 65. In other words: A generation that decamped for Splitsville in record numbers 35 years ago is still there, still trying to get it right.
Nathan Newman wanted a quieter marriage than the one his parents had. His father was a screenwriter, and his mother was a novelist. They stayed together, but things could get volatile. "Our home was kind of [Who's Afraid of] Virginia Woolf-y," he says.
Newman, 57, got hitched right out of college at the University of Michigan in 1981. He and his Midwestern bride arrived in Manhattan, unpacked their new VCR and went to their jobs, planning to save money before having kids. Unfortunately, Nathan's wife fell in love with her boss. And at 25, Newman found himself single again.
Reentering the dating scene, he became a serial monogamist, drifting from girlfriend to girlfriend and job to job. "I often wonder now if I'd have been more successful if I'd have just stayed put at something," he says. "But that was sort of the thing in the 1980s, to always be looking for the next great opportunity."
For restless boomers like him, finding love in the '80s was hard work and an industry with its own nomenclature emerged to assist. "That was when the whole concept and industry of marriage counseling took off," says Kristin Celello, associate professor of history at Queens College in New York and author of Making Marriage Work. "That's when people first start working on their relationships."
It was also when the term "soul mate" entered the modern vernacular, she adds, and the pursuit of these elusive creatures made many couples second-guess their own choice of partners. Now, your wife or husband wasn't just expected to be "good enough" — they had to be The One. During the late '60s and '70s, a spate of feel-good self-help books — The Courage to Divorce; I'm OK, You're OK; Looking Out for No. 1 — encouraged troubled couples to fearlessly split and find their joy — even if that risked traumatizing the children.
Lydia (not her real name) got married in 1959 at age 18. During the '60s, she taught at a junior college; she worked part time and raised their two kids, including a son who would be later be diagnosed with severe autism. She knew her husband was seeing other women. Sometimes he didn't even come home. She was lonely, miserable and financially trapped in her marriage. "I had this child who was going to be a child the rest of his life, and my husband was the only earner," she says. She didn't know how she could provide for her kids in what many then called a broken home.
As the divorce rate crested, the term "broken home" was supplanted by the less-catastrophizing phrase "single-parent home," which better reflected the shifting zeitgeist on failed marriages. "There was this feeling that kids are resilient. 'They'll be OK no matter what, so you should be happy!'" Coontz says. "But then came the backlash: 'If you get divorced, your kids will be damaged. Forever!'"
That was one of takeaways of psychologist Judith Wallerstein's 25-year California Children of Divorce Study, a groundbreaking longitudinal study she began in 1971. In the book Second Chances, published in 1989, she reported that more than half of children raised in divorced homes are so damaged they never marry themselves. The conclusions of Wallerstein, who died in 2012, remain controversial. Coontz argues there is little agreement in the data on the impact of divorce on children, except for research consistently showing that moving children in the middle of the school year is very difficult. The other numbers are all over the place. One study found that 24 percent of children saw their reading scores decline after divorce, but 19 percent saw their scores increase. Another study found that bullying and aggressive behavior increased in 18 percent of kids of divorced parents, and decreased in 14 percent. "What we have learned is that divorce is very painful, but not necessarily a tragedy," the historian says. "It's part of an ongoing process."
Lydia agonized over that process until 1981, when she separated from her husband. Her daughter was 12. "She'd been through so much. I was like, 'Oh, this child is going to be miserable and angry with me. But I sat her down and explained, and she said, 'Good.'"
"I didn't consciously think my parents should get divorced," Lydia's daughter, now a magazine executive, says. "But when they told me, I thought, 'That makes sense.' And my mom seemed lighter and happier."
Just as with the overall national data, it's not easy to pinpoint the long-term impact of Lydia's divorce on her daughter, who married in her mid-30s, had kids and split after five years. She now says she thinks she was attracted to her husband's family's seeming stability. "Really, we didn't have much in common," she says. "Can I blame my divorce on my parents? I don't know."
The echoes of the '80s divorce boom continue to reverberate through American society. The children of these broken marriages grew up to be wary young adults: A 2014 Pew Research Center report found that millennials marry at rates far lower than earlier generations — half of those between the ages of 25 and 34 have never been married, which is more than double the rate in 1960. And the U.S. marriage rate overall is at a historic low.
Meanwhile, the implacable boomers marry on — and divorce on. Another Pew study revealed that 66 percent of boomer-age respondents say they'd prefer divorce to staying in an unhappy marriage. That causes hand wringing in some circles, but to Coontz it's yet more proof of this generation's unkillable idealism. "After the kids are gone and the mortgage is paid, earlier generations would have just endured and suffered what we call 'shell marriages,' that is, unions that feel empty. But boomers expect many more healthy and active years, and they are willing to do what's necessary to make them happy."
Like so many of their cohort, Lee, Newman and Lydia all married a second time. (Bonus dating tip: Lee and Newman both met their second spouses at the gym. And bonus warning: Both marriages failed.) "When my family takes wedding photos now, we always get some where the two families stay on separate sides, so we can rip them in half later. They call it the Karen Rule," Lee says.
Lydia met her second husband at work and was widowed after 24 years of marriage in 2009. "I had a very good second go-round," she says. "But if I'm honest, I think that was luck. How can you really promise to stand by someone forever? People change."
All three are now dating — they met their current partners online. The two women have sworn off walking down the aisle again. But Newman is willing to give it a shot. "It's like that song," he says, referring to an old Barry White hit. "You know, from 1980. It starts, 'I believe in love.'"